Softwood Plantation Thinning

One of the people who came across my blog recently was asking about thinning a softwood plantation.  I appreciate the interest and questions from readers so I thought it would be a good idea to tackle this subject.  I will look at softwood plantation thinning in this blog but it will apply to natural stands and to hardwood stands to some degree as well.  I will write about hardwood thinning in a future blog.

This 12 year old plantation is in need of thinnig to release the good trees.

This 12-year-old plantation is in need of thinning to release the good trees.

Thinning, as most people would guess, is one of the most necessary steps in forest management.  It is an absolutely necessary step in creating the most valuable trees in a woodlot.  Mother nature has a way of putting too many new seedlings in an area, especially following a harvest operation or some natural disaster that removes most of the older trees.  As a woodlot owner you have choices of what to do with an open area in your woodlot.  For today’s blog I am going to assume that you want to restock (plant) the area with trees that are appropriate for the area.  This is exactly what we have done at Watts Tree Farm.  However, as a forest manager, you must be open to new ideas and techniques.  What I had done 25 years ago is not the same as I would do now and I am sure things will be a little different 25 years from now.  So forest management is dynamic and ever-changing.  One of the changes we have made is to have more than one species in a new plantation.  As a woodlot owner your thoughts about your woodlot and your needs from the woodlot will also change.

Early thinning allows for the removal of low quality trees.  This tree is simply taking up space that can be used by high quality trees.

Early thinning allows for the removal of low quality trees. This tree is simply taking up space that can be used by high quality trees.

When a plantation is established the seedlings are usually planted closer than is necessary for the final projected crop.   Trees are often planted 1.5 to 2.5 meters (5 – 8 feet) apart.  At maturity, the distance between trees could be as much as 6 – 8 meters (20 – 25 feet).  The initial plantation spacing is made based on the location and species.   Some plantations can make to harvest, without thinning, at this spacing but only if the final crop is to be lower valued fiber for fuel or pulp wood.  However, at Watts Tree Farm we are all about higher value not hight volume.  The close planting does have its advantages.  If trees are planed too far apart and do not have trees near them then they will grow wide and have heavy branches.   These heavy branches will create low valued “knotty” wood.  The trees will tend to grow out sideways, filling the space given to them, rather than up.  Taller, straighter trees will generally have more value for lumber.   But if trees are left too close for too long they will slow down their diameter growth.  The larger diameter of a good tree is one of the most important factors of what will makes good sawlogs and therefore higher value.  So occasional thinning is necessary. The timing of thinning will depend on how quickly the trees are crowding each other.  As trees crowd each other they are competing for space.  All of the trees in the plantation may begin to lose live crown.  It is the amount of live crown or living needles that feeds the tree and gives it its ability to maintain good growth.  Softwood trees naturally lose their lower branches because of shading.  As trees grow taller and compete with each other they create shade on the lower branches.  Some species do not tolerate share well and there for lose their lower branches more quickly.  Trees can also be manually pruned at a young age which can help the tree create high quality clear wood and in some cases it can help reduce the incidence of disease.  This also looks like a good topic for future blog.   Most softwood trees need between 1/3 and 1/2 of their total height to have live, green branches, to sustain good growth.  Estimating the percent of live branches in relation to the tree height can be a very good indication of the need for thinning.

The removal of trees in this commercial thinnig has created open space. The crowns of the remaing trees now have room to expand and remain healthy.

The removal of trees in this commercial thinning has created open space. The crowns of the remaining trees now have room to expand and remain healthy.

Many plantations will benefit from an early “cleaning” or “pre-commercial” thinning.  This first thinning gives you a very good chance at removing the poorest quality trees.   Trees that are damaged by insects, disease or some other factor can be removed.  Trees that are falling behind in height should also be removed as they are showing signs of being a weaker tree.   The tallest, dominant trees with good characteristics of the species should be kept.  Remaining trees should be “released” on al least one side and preferably two.  This open space, where an inferior tree was removed, will allow space for the branches of the released tree to fill in and maintain a good healthy crown.  The removed trees are simple left on the ground to slowly decay and provide nutrients to the growing trees.

These White Pines have reached their first commercial thinning size but still too small for saw logs.  Note the red flagging on the trees to remain and the "x" on the trees to remove.

These White Pines have reached their first commercial thinning size but still too small for saw logs. Note the red flagging on the trees to remain and the “x” on the trees to remove.

Later thinnings, as the trees get older, will provide a “commercial” or useable product.  Thinning done at this age, before the trees are of suitable sawlog size, usually end up as part of my fire wood supply from my woodlot.  Although these thinnings are called commercial they usually do not provide enough income to support the cost of harvesting and extracting the wood.  It will be up to you to decide if the extra time and/or expense it takes to remove this smaller diameter wood is worth it.  In plantations, some people opt for removing every third or fourth row.  This allows for convenient removal trails and can be a very simple thinning strategy.  Later thinnings will make use of these extraction trails for efficient removal of more commercially valuable logs.If you are serious about managing your woodlot, you will need to do some periodic thinning.  Good trees need space to grow.  Plantations of trees, just like vegetables in your garden, need some tender love and care so that they can reach their true potential.

Until next time, keep safe and well.

***Click on any photograph to get a large image***


Strip Cutting

For sometime I have been writing that I wanted to give more direct information about various aspects of forest management.  A lot of my previous blogs were more general in nature and some had little to do with actual management.  However, this is what I like about the forest and about writing these blogs, we can look at the woodlot from so many different angles.

Recent Strip Cut with fire wood waiting to be hauled home.

The strip cut is one of the easier forms of management to explain in a short blog like this.  It is quite simply, as its name implies, a narrow strip in a mature part of the forest where most trees are harvested at one time.   Of course, there are always some variations of the “text-book” definitions.  I’ll talk to you about the why, how and where this form of cutting is applied in Watts Tree Farm.

Red Oak seedling, enriching the site with new promise for higher quality tress in the future.

Since we heat our home with wood we need a supply each year of up to 8 cords (29m3) of wood.  Most of this comes from strip cuts in the woodlot.  But deciding where to cut is the question.   It is not just a random location.  It is almost never the easiest place to get the wood.  The location and layout take into account several factors.  Some thought goes into the decision and therefore the decision is guided by simple woodlot management objectives.  The first decision is we need wood from the woodlot.  The next is we would like to have a high percentage of hardwood.  We don’t mind burning softwood but we can usually get enough of this from other management practices such as plantation thinning.

7 year old Strip Cut with healthy planted white pine and red oak doing well among the naturally regenerated species.

So now that we have decided that we want to cut standing hardwood the next decision is relatively easy.  Where in the woodlot do we have the least valuable hardwood?  A stand that has almost no opportunity to be turned into high quality hardwood logs with the existing trees in the stand.  There is a stand of predominantly low-grade red maple, 60 – 80 years old that fits this description very well.  Now more thoughts will go into the layout and guide the harvest location.  The next factor to consider is the wildlife in the woodlot.  Some species of wildlife enjoy the larger hardwood trees in a more or less continuous block.  We have set aside a block of higher quality trees in which there is potential to grow good quality hardwood logs and this area will be slated for individual tree selection cutting.  But there are also some species of song birds that like the thickets of regenerating areas and this is where the strip cuts provide this diversity in the woodlot.

This site was strip cut about 20 years ago. It has received one thinning 5 years ago. Note the high quality stems of naturally regenerated birch and maple. Management works!

The strip cuts in the lowest grade ares of the woodlot also allow us to “reset the clock” so to speak to zero and we can now do improvements in the new regenerating stands.  To begin with since we use just a little wood each years our strip cuts end up being progressive strip cuts.  In other words it takes several years to cut one strip.  It is more like a series of patch cuts attached end to end with the result being a longer strip.  The strip cuts are typically about 1 – 2 times as wide as the trees are tall.  Therefor if the trees are 50 feet (15m) tall the strip cut will be between 50 – 100 ft (15-30m) wide.  As soon as the strips are cut we add other desirable species to the cut area.  This enriches both the diversity and the potential future value of the area.  Red oak and White pine are added to the newly regenerating stand.  These new young stands will be managed through the years to someday provide high quality logs along with fire wood and all the other benefits of wildlife habitat.  The strip cuts also add some visual diversity to the woodlot.  The aesthetics are another component of management that I have not yet touched on in these blogs but I am sure sometime I will.  There are other possible benefits to the strip cut method of management but we will leave those for another time.  You can click on any photo get a larger image.

Until next time, keep safe and well.

Woodlot Management – Enhancing Values

It is my hope that many of the people who follow this blog are woodlot owners looking for more information about what to do with their own piece of forested land.  In future blogs I will write about many things going on in Watts Tree Farm and why some management decisions are made.  Before I talk about management decisions and various woodlot management techniques I think it is important to start with some of the basics.

Christmas trees provide more than just economic benefits. They provide recreation in the form of healthy exercise.

To manage a woodlot your must decide what you are managing for.  It is mostly a matter of deciding which forest values are most important to you.  You can always do something to enhance the values that matter most to you.  But if you haven’t given any thought to the things you want most from your woodlot, then you may not be doing the best things to change, or protect the forest to get the results you need.  If all this sounds a little unclear I am going to try to explain.

A woodlot can give us many things.  But, what I may want from my woodlot, may be very different that the things you may want.  You need to take some time to think about all the ways you use your woodlot and write these down.  Think about which things are more important.  In other words, prioritize them.  Here is a list of some of the reasons why people own and manage a woodlot:

  • Economics (you want to make money or save money)
  • Personal sanctuary (peace and quiet)
  • Wildlife
  • Close to nature
  • Recreation
  • Protecting a special piece of land or ecosystem
  • Spiritual connection
  • Aesthetics
  • Responsibility (we owe it to the next generation to do the right things today)

Young Robins enjoying the safety of a densely sheared Christmas tree.

Of course there are more and many of these can be broken down into more refined reasons why your woodlot is important to you.  Once you have a list of the things that are important to you then you need to put them in order of importance.  Not all woodlot management techniques are beneficial to all of the things on your list.  There is always give and take.  That is why you need to understand that an action that enhances one value could reduce another value.  This does not mean that you can not have many values, you certainly can. Deciding which values are most important helps you find a balance.

Taking a walk with my two best friends.

The list above is more or less in the order that is most important to why I own and enjoy my woodlot.  A lot of these would rate very close to one another.  It is difficult to put one thing ahead of another unless it is something that really stands out to you.  I have economics at the top of my list.  It was probably the strongest reason why I bought the woodlot in the first place back in 1978.  But over time other features have moved up the list and perhaps, in my future years, other reasons could go to the head of the list.  So as you see these things change with time.

Protecting a stream with the cover of trees is in everyone’s interest.

In future blogs, I would like to write about some management techniques that can satisfy many of the things on my list.  Growing quality, not quantity, is one of my prime areas of interest.  Looking forward and gaining more money from a single tree is something I hope more woodlot owners will achieve.  Of course there is a leap of faith that these larger,  selected and managed trees will have more value in the market place.   I look forward to people writing to me at: or leaving your comments on the blog site.

Until next time.  Keep safe and well.

(click on any photo for a larger image.)

Red Oak – PEI’s Provincial Tree

Red Oak in early fall, adding a beautiful color to the Autumn landscape.

Managing a woodlot begins with some simple principles, such as, being able to identify some of the most common trees in your area and knowing something about them.  I’ve chosen Red Oak to talk about in today’s blog.

Every province in Canada has its own Provincial tree.  Red Oak is Prince Edward Island’s.  Red oak is not an overly common tree in PEI and grows only in a few concentrated areas.  When I bought my woodlot back in 1978 there were no red oak trees on the property or in the area.  In the mid 1980’s I stared a few red oaks from seed and planted these seedlings in scattered spots in the woodlot.  Today these first few red oak trees, now in their mid twenties, are the source of new red oak seedlings beginning to grow throughout the woodlot.  I often find them growing among my Christmas trees, where I know I did not plant them.

Red oak has a large seed that is called an acorn.  Because of its large size it is not distributed by the wind.  So how are these large seeds being distributed?  This is where our fur and feather friends play a role.  Squirrels, chipmunks and blue jays are the most likely distributors of these seeds.

Young red oak saplings, about 2-3 meters tall, under-planted in an aging white spruce stand. The beginning of a new and diverse forest stand.

Remember I mentioned about knowing something about trees in order to begin to manage them.  Every tree species has a certain characteristic known as shade tolerance.  Simply put, it is the measure of the degree of light necessary for species to survive.  Most trees will grow much better in full sunlight but some are very good at surviving in shade or semi shade conditions.  Red oak is roughly in the middle of the range of shade tolerance or what is called intermediate shade tolerance.  This means they can be planted in areas where they will get some sun and shade.  But for best growth they need more sunlight.

One year old red oak seedling growing naturally in the woodlot. This young tree was not planted and is a long way from a mature tree. Proof that either a squirrel or a jay brought the seed here.

Most people think that red oak are slow-growing trees.   Most people would be wrong.  Red oak is among the fastest growing hardwood trees in PEI.  In the right conditions it has a growth rate nearly equal to some of the best growing softwood trees.  Red oak has many great features which is why I encourage them to grow in my woodlot.  They have value as a tree that can be cut for high quality lumber.  They respond well to pruning, which will be a topic in a future blog.  They add diversity to my woodlot.  They are aesthetically very attractive, especially in the autumn.  Red oak also add a valuable new food source to my woodlot for several mammals that make up part of the natural food chain.   They are probably one of the most valuable tree species I can add to my woodlot from just about every use I can think of.

If you want to add red oak to your woodlot it can be very easy.  If you don’t have a source of seedlings but you do know where there is a mature red oak you can collect acorns in the fall, then you may be all set.  Collect the acorns just as they fall from the tree or if you can, pick them directly from the tree right at the time they are ready to fall.   Take your red oak seeds and walk through your woodlot and plant the seeds directly in the soil in the fall.  You are just doing what mother nature intended!  Plant the seed just barely beneath the soil.  The winter will stratify the seed and make them ready to sprout the next spring.  If you are anxious to know where they are put a small marker by the spot where you planted the oak seed.  In the first year the new seedling will only put up a small top, as seen in the photo (click on any photo for a larger image) but will have a very long root.   Red oak will develop a deep root which makes it very wind firm as a mature tree.

In future blogs I will write about other species giving you some insight into why they are important to Watts Tree Farm.

Until next time, keep safe and well.

A Short Walk on a Winter’s Day

When I started my blog a few months ago it was my intention to write one new blog about every three or four weeks.  However, I suppose that will vary a little.  I went for a short walk today and thought it would be a good time to share my discoveries and see a little of what is happening out there, in the woodlot, in the winter.  Besides it is a good day to get outside with my two best friends. 

Winter blow down. Look closely at the small pine that will now have more room & sunlight to grow

The snow is crusty and quite easy to walk on.  We have had some windy weather and I wanted to see if there are many “blow downs”.  Sure enough there are a few but nothing serious.  Trees blowing down or breaking off is a normal part of Mother Nature’s plan for making slow but sure changes in any forest.  Of course we hope we do not lose some of our more valuable trees. 

Spruce seeds on top of the crusty snow.

What I noticed on the snow as I walked was the amount of material on top of the snow.  Needles, twigs, bracts from cones and seeds…lots and lots of seeds!  We tend to think of all the seeds from trees and shrubs falling in the late summer or fall.  But here we are in late February and the snow is covered with seeds.  I’ll be honest, I wasn’t surprised.  I’ve known ever since my early days in forest management that Mother Nature uses many vehicles to distribute seeds, the creation of new life in the forest. 

Muffin and Sophie in the middle of the blueberry field on a cool and windy February day.

There is perhaps no better combination than wind and crusty snow to distribute seeds kilometers from the source.  Just to prove this I went to the most open spot in my woodlot, the middle of my blueberry field.  Although this is not kilometers from the nearest tree it is at least 100 meters.  Sure enough there were tree seeds on the snow. Not as many as in the forest but not hard to find either.  What I found were mostly spruce seeds with some pine and I think some birch.  All hitching a ride on the icy snow to find a possible new home to begin a new forest.

Tiny spruce seed in the middle of the blueberry field. Evidence of the amazing power of icy snow and wind to distribute seeds far and wide.

The wind was strong today and my two friends and I decided to return to the warm comfort of our home.  I have always said that I have never walked in the woodlot without seeing something new.  It is a dynamic place that changes week by week, day by day and even hour by hour.  I am sure if I went back again this afternoon I would find other interesting things to see.  I think writing this blog about Watts Tree Farm will help me keep my eyes open.  I know I said I would get ino the topics of forest management but in a way I think we did that today.   You may have learned a little about how Mother Nature regenerates new life in the forest.  We will have lots of time to think about how we put small bits of knowledge together to understand how to manage a forest. 

Until next time, keep safe and well.